Ideological challenges to nature conservation are nothing new, but now they can take different guises in the context of Brexit and in the (perhaps wilful) distortion of rewilding.
Confronting green agendas
On 30 January 2017, the Times published a leading commentary by Matt Ridley titled ‘Brexit will boost our green and pleasant land‘. I penned much of what follows in an attempt to reach The Times readership, because Ridley plays fast and loose with facts. He is far from uninformed, being both a landowner, an Oxford zoologist by training, and a member of the House of Lords. I always find his environmental views dauntingly well-argued and seldom see anyone matching them getting access to the media in the way he does. He is part of the growing backlash against the environmental movement arguing that such issues as acid raid, DDT, anti-nuclear campaigns and the ‘war on climate’ are all over-hyped and back the left-liberal greenies efforts to push for a command-and-control economy. The global treaties on climate are often in his sights. Unfortunately, I think he is right on the topic of climate, and when the frost settles (as I believe the data shows it will), there is a risk that he and the interests he represents will claim the whole field, and progressive environmental reforms will be shouted down.
Ridley in the Times argues for the status quo in farming and wildlife conservation, urging government to ignore the more radical ideas of rewilding and continue the tested relationship of agri-environment schemes after Brexit. He argues for localised policies, grouse-shoots, killing foxes and crows to protect lapwings, and domestic grazing of the hills to keep them open for walkers. However, there are a number of misapprehensions in his analysis. Current safeguards for wildlife have had mixed success and the shining example of Philip Merricks’ work across Kent marshlands is hardly representative of the majority of British farmland, where bird numbers in particular have been in continual decline. The more wildlife-friendly agri-environment schemes cover too small an area and do not redress the widespread losses over the past 50 years. Species diversity is the index that Ridley uses to berate rewilding. But it is not the only measure – abundance is important, and largely lost from our experience of nature and the great outdoors. We have lost very few species, but abundance of many on farmland has dropped by between 50-80% in the past 30 years.
Rewilding can help. However, the rewilding movement in Britain has a long history that is not always acknowledged by more recent advocates. Those who advocate a strong push for large-scale abandonment of farming and the return of wolf, lynx and bear, can get more notice than the voices which prefer a slow and steady re-creation of wilder landscapes and re-introductions.
The spectacle of abundance and the charisma of keystone species is of greater general interest than biodiversity indices. Nor is the number of species, some often obscure and hard to tell apart, necessarily a guide to an ecologically sustainable landscape. If some large areas of the English or Welsh uplands were to be planted with native woodland and then grazed by introduced natural grazers – such as Exmoor ponies and herds of red deer, together with lynx as a predator, then a mosaic of habitats would result and some open-country species would decline and other woodland and scrub species increase. However, the overall majesty of an extensive forest with charismatic wild animals rather than domestic stock, generating new experiences, and its own dynamic of walkers, photographers, artists and wildlife enthusiasts, would hardly measure on an old-school conservationist’s index of what is good, and what to aim for.
That is the essence of the rewilding argument – a movement toward a wilder Britain, something not easily measured, but clearly tangible when experienced. It does entail less micro-management, but is not entirely hands-off either. Planting programmes would be required and these already involve innumerable small-scale seed collecting and community nurseries, mostly voluntary, but often grant-aided and feeding into the local economy.
No sensible rewilding advocates have called for a complete absence of economic activity in the hills, nor for wolves or bears in England or Wales. Wolves but not bears would find enough space and natural prey in Scotland, should the political barriers be surmountable – in my view, highly unlikely. No wolves have been deliberately re-introduced anywhere in Europe. The expansion of this species into Germany from Poland, and into France from Italy, has been a natural reclaiming of former territory. Lynx, however, have been successfully re-introduced to Switzerland, Germany and France.
Radical policy shifts or pragmatic refinements?
In my 2005 book, Beyond Conservation, I reviewed most of British and European rewilding practice for BANC, who then brought together all of the projects and their practitioners in a network of shared experience. This culminated in setting up the Wildland Research Institute in Leeds University, and a series of regional seminars and national conferences bringing together all interested parties – including many traditional conservationists. The conservation paradigm has been shifting, with the National Trust, Forestry Commission and John Muir Trust slowly changing their management practices. There is a general recognition that some wild but empty landscapes currently grazed by domestic stock would have a lot more to offer if reforested and restocked with wild grazers, and with beavers buffering flood risks.
Not one of these bodies of practitioners has advocated the removal of hill-farming subsidies and disbanding the upland communities that depend upon them. There is actually space for both in Britain, and in my book I advocated one large-scale landscape scheme for Wales, England and Scotland, making use of contiguous influence of, for example, Forestry Commission and National Trust tracts of land which link together. Outside of these truly wildland areas, hill farming would still provide its mosaic of habitats, but improved by streamside planting, lower grazing intensity, replacement of some sheep by special breeds of cattle and most important a re-focus of farms and a restructuring of subsidy to reflect a broader public interest. Currently, there is no subsidy for wildland and natural grazers. In any case, upland farming communities are stressed by low income and lack of recruitment as farmers retire – they need a new model.
Organic renewal of nature
There is also a lowland rewilding in progress. The Great Fen Project in East Anglia and the Avalon Marshes Project in Somerset involve several organisations buying adjacent farmland and reverting to fen, with re-introductions of crane and colonisation by marsh harrier and egrets. But the single most powerful shift of paradigm – one that would see more farmworkers, more people living on the land, and more wildlife close to urban centres, would be an extension of organic food production. Organic farms are richer in herbs, seed-bearing grasses, hence butterflies and birds – the richness that I can remember as a boy.
The agricultural industry has resisted the organic movement, regarding it as a food fad and niche market. And the supermarket chains with their continual pressure for least-cost food production pander to the ideals of cheap food. Low-cost food means an impoverished landscape. Dietary choices largely determine the countryside and its wildlife.
There are broader psychological reasons for rewilding landscapes than can be accounted in biodiversity indicies. Herds of deer running wild and free, the howl of a wolf, the flight of an eagle, the rise of a lark in the morning or clouds of butterflies dancing in the summer sun – these feed the soul, and we can bring them back at relatively little cost and with cooperation of all parties currently managing our landscape.
Feed your ideology
The above arguments were my response to Matt Ridley’s, but unpublished by The Times. I would add that there is something disingenuous about arguing for agri-environment schemes that he must know can never be scaled up because government will not meet the costs. He claims that it is ‘technology’ that has led to a 70% reduction in the land needed for a given food production – whereas more likely it is the loss of fallow land practice, silage production from monoculture rye grass, confining animals indoors and feeding them imported grain. I would like to see regulation not voluntary agreements – on streamside protection and field margins, hedgerow trimming and above all, organic production. I don’t know how free a new and independent Britain will be to introduce legislation considering trade agreements and competition – perhaps this would be a useful point for a BANC discussion.
Finally, I would like to see a mobilisation of wildlife lovers – across the spectrum (RSPB, National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, Woodland Trust etc)… which runs to several million people, not campaigning for regulation as that will fall on deaf ears, but changing their own purchasing habits, buying organic and local – making it a discipline, and making savings elsewhere. Farmers would soon enough respond to a shift in the market. And to get motivated and visit an organic farm this year.
Some people favour moving purely within the conservation paradigm precisely because the rewilding concept has engendered conflict. That is a pity, since the practitioners on the ground have from the very beginning sought to avoid it. Most of those taking extremist misanthropic views where people are unwelcome in the landscape (walkers as well as farmers), do so from their armchairs, or writer’s desks, or academic tower blocks. In the past few years we have witnessed a serial hi-jacking, ever since one of the Millibands used the R word – first by academics talking up the extremes, then journalists formenting conflict and most recently, philosophers disturbed by the lack of definition. The newcomers rarely reference the BANC and ECOS literature. That reveals that many of us prefer wildland without definable outcomes, on all scales from 10% of the back-garden, the return of a river meander, a two-metre unkept field-margin, all the way to expansive experiments such as Ennerdale in Cumbria. Rewilding is a process of action with feedbacks into the human psyche and as such, cannot be readily measured and defined. Many of us have worked hard to make it a cooperative venture, caring more for the diversity of human interactions with the landscape than an ultimately meaningless counting of species. There may well be greater public interest but it needs to translate into action on the ground and above all, engagement in the process.